04/09/2003 12:00AM

Top two in Ill. Derby headed for Kentucky


CHICAGO - The top two finishers in Saturday's Illinois Derby, Ten Most Wanted and Fund of Funds, came out of the race in good physical condition and could meet again May 3 in the Kentucky Derby.

Ten Most Wanted, who vanned from Hawthorne to Keeneland on Wednesday, definitely is being pointed for the Derby, trainer Wally Dollase confirmed, while Fund of Funds's connections also are giving the race serious consideration.

The Illinois Derby was a breakout race for both colts, and though Ten Most Wanted finished more than four lengths ahead of Fund of Funds, Fund of Funds had more than nine lengths on the rest of the field.

"If you take the winner out, we're going to the Derby for sure off that race," said Fund of Funds's trainer, Rick Violette. "He was the only one to attend the pace and be around at the end."

Fund of Funds vanned back to Violette's New York base on Sunday, and though tired from the best race of his brief career and a long journey, he seemed to be in good spirits by mid-week, Violette said.

"Nobody has Derby fever yet, but it's not out of the question," said Violette. "He's a nice horse and these are nice questions to be asking."

Beaten in a second-level allowance race in his previous start, Fund of Funds showed vast improvement Saturday, but no more than Ten Most Wanted, who had only a maiden win to his credit. Dollase had faith in Ten Most Wanted's raw ability, but wondered how long his colt would take to put everything together. Last weekend, Ten Most Wanted went from taking baby steps to giant strides, rating comfortably for the first time as he put together a thoroughly professional race.

"Everything's fine with him," Dollase said. "He's eating up everything and he seems to be great. He's real hearty. I don't think he's ever missed a meal. He's tough as nails."

Pat Day rode Ten Most Wanted in his last two starts, but Dollase said he hadn't yet secured a Derby commitment from Day. "I talked to his agent, and he said it was 90 percent he'd be riding the horse," he said. "Right now, I think we're in the driver's seat."

Pierce could have his day

There will be no Triple Crown rumblings this weekend at Hawthorne - just a whole lot of Illinois-breds.

Hawthorne hosts six $100,000 races for statebred horses on Saturday, and though the restricted nature of the stakes keeps them from being top class, it draws out just about anyone with an Illinois-bred horse that can run.

It's a day for people like Clayton Pierce, the trainer of Gumbo Love, who runs in the Violet Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. Pierce found time to talk about Gumbo Love and his small operation on Tuesday, though he did so while kneeling on the floor of a stall at Hawthorne.

Pierce, 43, has five horses at Hawthorne, all for owner Jay Collier, and besides a hotwalker and an exercise rider, Pierce is the whole operation. He grooms all the horses himself as he plots out their racing careers - which is the only way Pierce wants it.

"I never really wanted to train. I don't like being around people that much," Pierce said. "This just kind of fell into my lap."

Collier has 17 horses, including mares and stock too young to race, and he bred Gumbo Love himself through a mating of Jambalaya Jazz and the mare Quick Love. Gumbo Love quickly impressed Pierce when she began training - which is saying a lot.

"I'm a doubting Thomas," Pierce said. "They're all rats to me until they prove otherwise, but I've always been high on her. When she'd work fast, that's not me, but we couldn't do it any other way."

Gumbo Love debuted March 2 at Hawthorne and won a statebred race by almost nine lengths. Her second start came in open company, and though Gumbo Love was beaten two lengths by a filly named Sparkling Sabia, she finished eight lengths ahead of the show horse. Pierce thinks Gumbo Love is cut out to be a route horse, but she still has a good chance to get him his first career stakes win in the six-furlong Violet.

Problem is, Gumbo Love runs in one of the day's strongest races. Set to oppose her are the impressive two-time winner Book the Devil, as well as good-looking maiden winners Fighting Fever and Natural Image.

Julie's Prize: Future star?

Richard Otto owns Natural Image, and Tony Mitchell trains her, but their best shot at a stakes win Saturday comes in the Peach of It Handicap. That's where Julie's Prize runs, and she could turn into a standout in the statebred route division this season.

Julie's Prize held her own in abbreviated sprints last year as a 2-year-old, but all the while Mitchell was convinced her future lay in distance racing. Indeed, Julie's Prize was still a maiden when she won the $100,000 Illinois Breeders' Debutante last winter in her first two-turn race.

"Two turns was key for her," Mitchell said. "She's a hickory horse - she doesn't care about anything. She's all guts and determination. She might take a half-hour to get going, but when you ask her for that heat she's going to take off."

Julie's Prize is a spring 3-year-old meeting older horses, but her seasonal debut here last month produced an effortless 3 1/2-length victory. Mitchell said that race was designed as a prep, and he expects even more from Julie's Prize on Saturday.

Reavis and Sterling - again

Friday's feature here is a second-level allowance at one mile and 70 yards, and here's a big surprise - trainer Mike Reavis and jockey Larry Sterling have a prime contender.

Reavis has won with 34 of 86 starters at the meet, an amazing 40 percent win mark, and Sterling, the runaway leading rider here, has ridden most of them. In Friday's fourth race the pair has Illegal Smile, who has been mired in this allowance condition for too long, but was a good second March 10 in his first start of the season. Illegal Smile has the rail, an automatic positive at this meet.